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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

How Shared Stressing Out Helps You Relax

tired students with tablet pc, books and notebooks

Misery loves company. A new study out of USC argues that stress is reduced when the experience is shared. In other words, complaining about your ridiculous deadlines, unreasonable professors, and brutal workloads with your classmates is actually a valid coping mechanism.

For the study, researchers measured cortisol (a hormone released in stressful situations) levels among participants completing a public speaking task. Participants who were allowed to discuss the task among one another in advance were notably less stressed than those in isolation.

The key was the emotional state of the person who spoke with the participant. When the emotional profiles were the same — because they were in a similar situation — stress levels decreased. That suggests there’s something more socially advanced going on than simple catharsis. Stress levels aren’t just dropping because the participants are getting the stress off their backs, they’re dropping because the participants see that someone else is stressed out too. There’s an automatic surge of social support that comes just from knowing somebody else is having a similar reaction.

So next time your professor announces that you’ll be having a final paper AND a final exam, don’t call up your parents or your boyfriend/girlfriend to complain. They’ll support you, saying, “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

But you’ll feel a lot better talking to that person who sits next to you in lectures, who’ll tell you, “This is impossible. We are both going to fail.” It’s just nice to know someone else feels the same.

We’re One Step Closer to Getting Real Lightsabers, People

Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker on Bespin

Image via Wookiepedia

According to an article published in the science journal Nature, scientists from MIT and Harvard have managed to observe light photons as particles. That means that while light doesn’t really have matter or mass in the way we normally understand it, it can still be made to “stick together” to form light molecules.

Now, if we can just get three or four feet worth of these light molecules to stick together and add whatever properties let it deflect lasers and slice through flesh, we’ll have ourselves our very own lightsabers.


STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too


It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

A Mixed Drink Inspired by Today’s Russian Meteor and Close-Call Asteroid

meteorBetween Asteroid 2012 DA14 passing a mere 17,200 miles from the surface and the meteor impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia causing over 1,000 injuries, I think it’s time we  start calling February 15th International Space Junk Day. Children can celebrate by throwing rocks at each other. Adults can coat ice cubes in 151, light them on fire, and drop them into a vodka & tonic. We can call the drink an “Atmospheric Entry,” or maybe a “Siberian Sky.”

Should Some Majors Cost Less Than Others?

"Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."

Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned here before, this isn’t exactly true.

A report thrown together by a Florida task force on education has proposed that more in-demand and higher paid majors (science, engineering, math, and tech) should pay less for tuition than the less in-demand majors (art, history, English, etc.).

You can read the whole proposal here, and marvel at the delightfully cheesy stock photography included for no reason.

Now before anyone in the comments turns this into a science vs. humanities spitting contest, please remember that we are not anti-science. Far from it. We’re not anti-anything, other than really bad ideas. And this is one of those really bad ideas.

Now, loyal readers will remember that I’ve used this blog to object to the misguided good intentions of a Florida educational task force once before. This post is going to read a bit like that one again. Once again, the state has a problem, in this case, not enough people entering fields that really boost the state’s economy. Once again, a short-sighted solution doesn’t seem to take into account the way people actually think.

The proposal would institute a tuition freeze for the fields the Florida government decided are the most valuable. So while studio art degrees go up and up year after year, engineering degrees would stay where they are. “Most valuable” here means “will lead to jobs that make the most money.” This is valuable to the state, of course, because higher earners will pay more in taxes.

Now before you claim there’s some sort of anti-right brain bias, know that the task force chair suggested Florida State could theoretically lobby to freeze the tuition for creative writing and film as well, since there’s been some success getting people into the entertainment industry so far. So if your school has celebrity alumni, than congratulations, you can pay less for taking the same classes they did.

The proposal seems to operate on this assumption: if certain degrees are cheaper, more people will get those degrees. But this makes no sense. These degrees are for higher paying jobs. If a higher salary for life doesn’t convince someone to work in a certain field, why would paying slightly less for four years make any difference at all? (more…)

Every Time NASA Gets Excited, We All Hope It’s Because of Aliens

A NASA photo of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

If you’re NASA, you should really be more careful about throwing around phrases like “one for the history books.” That’s the terminology John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, used in a recent interview. But he was light on other details, so, since wild speculation is human nature, people are trying to figure out what Curiosity could have dug out of the Martian dirt that can be called “historic.”

The specifics of this discovery are remaining secret until (most likely) a conference in early December, to give the scientists time to triple-check the results. But since one of the primary objectives of Curiosity is to see if the Red Planet has ever been capable of supporting simple organisms, it stands to reason that a discovery along those lines would be the sort of thing NASA was looking for.

So what could they have found in the analyzed soil samples? Large amounts of methane, an organic compound that’s usually produced by lifeforms?

Sure, that’s a reasonable assumption, but who wants to hear that? I prefer the unreasonable, thank you very much:

  • a human skeleton
  • the Holy Grail
  • the Ark of the Covenant
  • whatever those magic stones were in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Amelia Earhart
  • a dinosaur in a space suit (proving they didn’t  go extinct, they just got tired of Earth)
  • this photo:

Marvin the Martian looks at the Earth through his telescope.

Could Facebook Affect How You Vote?

Message saying "I voted... did you?"

Anybody who logged onto Facebook on election day got hit with a crazy number of “go vote!” messages. Most were from your friends, many were from the companies you’ve Liked. (We tried to make ours go down easier by pairing it with a picture of an adorable puppy.) But there were also some messages from Facebook itself. They were either just general messages to go vote or a list of your friends who’ve already voted (who then told Facebook that they voted, of course).

But here’s where it gets interesting. Not everybody saw these messages. Four percent of Facebook users got no message. Why?

Facebook button saying "Remind Friends to Vote"
Because they were all being subjected to a big social experiment.

The Atlantic explains:

By splitting up the population into these experimental and control groups, researchers will be able to see if the messages had any effect on voting behavior when they begin matching the Facebook users to the voter rolls (whom a person voted for is private information, but whether they voted is public).

Researchers want to know if social pressure from Facebook affects people’s decisions about voting. So, with Facebook’s cooperation, they’re seeing if the “your friends are voting” messages gave people the final push to perform their civic duty.

For most people, Facebook and politics are like potato chips and cupcakes — addictive on their own, but pretty revolting when paired together. The number of posts for (or more likely, against) a candidate before the election was topped only by the number of posts by people complaining about their Facebook feeds being hijacked by friends talking politics.

(Somebody could make a killing on a Facebook app that blocks all references to specific candidates. Get on that, innovators.)

But maybe the constant politi-chatter is reinforcing your political beliefs as it annoys you. You might roll your eyes when one of your friends posts “NOBAMA!”, but maybe that post is a reminder for liberal voters to cancel out that guy’s vote and a reminder for conservative voters to back that guy’s vote up. Maybe individual political messages all blur together after awhile, but the combined effect of seeing them again and again every day helps you develop your opinion.

Think about it this way: Ask the next person you see which presidential candidate they voted for. Most people will answer quickly. Now ask someone how they voted for a specific local ballot measure. Many people won’t even be able to remember.

And which are you more likely to see as a Facebook post — “NOBAMA” or “MEASURE 82, I CHOOSE YOU!”?

(Note to self: Make Pokémon themed bumper sticks supporting ballot measures that end in 2′s.)

Hurricanes Were Kinda Sexist Until 1979

With Hurricane Sandy, which you might know better as the Frankenstorm, pounding the East Coast, it got us thinking about the weird practice of naming hurricanes after people. It was odder still in the not-too-distant past, since from 1954 to 1979, hurricanes only received ladies’ names.

The practice started with the advent of the National Weather Service (which was then called the National Weather Bureau). The service was started by military meteorologists (yes, that’s a thing) after the end of World War II. They named them after the military phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.). Needless to say, that was a bit boring and repetitive, so the NWS adopted an older, informal practice among meteorologists to name storms the same way people name their cars, boats, guitars, and guns — after women.

It took years of complaining by influential feminists to get the National Weather Service to play fair, since, as it turns out, a lot of women didn’t really like being compared to devastating natural disasters.

But weirder still than the whole idea of giving a unique identity to a giant pocket of low air pressure with high winds whirling around it is the fact that the most devastating hurricanes get their names “retired.” Yes, just as you’ll never see another Chicago Bulls player don the number 23, we’ll never get hit by another hurricane named Katrina or Isabel.

And that’s really weird, right? It’s like we want to honor certain storms as “all-time greats.” I’ve got this weird mental image of jerseys hung in the rafters of the National Weather Service offices.

Sad News: Jurassic Park Proven Scientifically Impossible

The triceratops scene from Jurassic Park, with a tear added to the dinosaur's faceI have news that’s incredibly disappointing to my younger self, age 3 to 9. Sadly, we’ll never be able to build a real-life Jurassic Park, because the half-life of DNA strands only lasts 521 years.

While it’s been generally assumed that DNA would break down after a long enough period, proving it would require large samples of theoretically DNA-rich material. A group of Australian scientists found the right test materials in bones of the now-extinct moa, an emu-like bird  from New Zealand that looked a little something like this:

The extinct bird, the moa

These bones were hundreds or thousands of years old, not millions, but it gave the scientists enough information to conclude that it takes 521 years after cell death for the bonds that hold together DNA to dissolve completely. Even under perfect conditions (for example, protected inside mosquitos preserved in amber like in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie), there is no way the DNA would remain intact after the 6.8 million years that separate us from dinosaurs. The team’s best estimate for the oldest potentially readable DNA under perfect conditions is 1.5 million.

So no Cloneosaurus in our future. Though with that 521 year half-life bearing down on us, we still might be able to make a cloned Christopher Columbus if we hurry.

Sexist-Proving Scientists Prove Scientists Sexist

A comic on Rosalind Franklin from Kate Beaton's webcomic "Hark! A Vagrant"

Source: Hark! A Vagrant

The fact that women aren’t paid as fairly as men isn’t news to anyone. But this is the first time I’ve seen that stat approached as a highly controlled purely scientific study, and directed at the very people conducting the study.

A group of researchers at Yale conducted a double-blind study that sent out identical application materials for entry-level academic science jobs. The catch? The applications were randomly given a male or female name. You can read the full published paper here. (It’s only six pages, so it is readable for the curious.)

The end results were biased. Really, really biased. On a scale of 1-5 in the categories of competence, hireability, and mentoring, women were consistently rated about 0.7 points lower then men. The “hiring” scientists were also asked to offer a starting salary to the applicants. The women were offered an average of $26.5K. The men were offered a little over $30K.

Marie Curie must be turning over in her radioactive grave.

I’m sure you could probably do this study with any industry and get more or less the same results. But the reason this study is worth a blog post is (a) the whole scientists using science against other scientists thing has a bit of an ouroboros feel to it and (b) there is already such a strong stereotype against women in math and science. This study suggests that stereotype might be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If women are rated lower and paid less, there will be fewer female scientists considered eligible candidates and more female scientists who look elsewhere for a field where it is easier to thrive unimpeded. From the study’s conclusions:

To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes women’s full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness.

It’s not worth giving the individual scientists any grief about this. Like so many things, the problem is social and institutional, not individual. Note that the study found no discernible difference between male and female hiring academics. The women displayed the same bias. How can that be?

Once again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Female scientist reads application from another woman, is subconsciously aware of the stereotype and subtly adheres to it, despite better judgment at a higher processing level. Or it might be explained by a type of subconscious stereotype threat. (Here’s a good NPR article on the topic.)  Female scientist reads application from another woman, is actively aware of the stereotype, and judges more critically to prove that she has no bias one way or the other. With both explanations, the end result is the same.

That’s the sad/confusing part. Being aware of a problem is the right first step towards fixing it, but perhaps awareness subtly contributes to the problem too.


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